A HISTORY OF VENICE by John Julius Norwich

A HISTORY OF VENICE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Published in Britain in two volumes, this massive but modest tome claims only to be ""a straightforward record of the main political events of Venetian history, for the general, non-academic reader""--and that's all it is. Aside from the occasional appreciation of a major building, you won't find cultural textures here. Also, as Norwich himself admits, you won't find--with a few exceptions--personalities. What you will find, however, is chattily readable prose, a dry sense of humor (""Eunuchs, as everybody knows, are dangerous people to cross""), and the author's engagingly qualified admiration for the Venetians--their unflagging self-interest, their state-imposed discipline, their secular, non-intellectual activism, their flexible ability to live more or less under a constitution for centuries. Here, then, is Venice from 5th-century beginnings as a refuge from barbarians to a loose, autonomous association of island communities under the Byzantine Empire circa 800 (her ""very submission"" assured independence and greatness); from a trade-centered Republic, fighting wars and pirates, to the builders (circa 1150) of an overseas empire (with a boost from the plundering Fourth Crusade) and a world-power circa 1300; from a Machiavellian peak of war/trade/diplomacy to, after Vasco da Gama (""Overnight, Venice had become a backwater""), a steady decline--with external entanglements and internal ""sickness."" Here, too, are the 100-some doges, the ups and downs of the elitist oligarchy and the Council of Ten; the problems with Popes (Julius II is perhaps the strongest character in the book); the role of the condottieri; the pros and cons re Venice as a police state. (Norwich, dearly something of an elitist himself, argues the relative freedoms and huge benefits of Venice's system.) And here, too, is conspiracy after conspiracy, war after war, a few floods, the Black Death, and the acquisition of a patron saint (""History records no more shameless example of body-snatching""). Most Venice-lovers, of course, will miss the esthetic cross-references. Serious history lovers will look vainly for deep, broad analysis. But, for those who share Norwich's more narrow enthusiasms: a lucid, companionable pageant.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1982
ISBN: 0679721975
Publisher: Knopf